The Right to be Wrong

[This post should really be about Dallas and the two horrific incidents preceding and triggering what happened there. It isn’t, because I am still processing it all. I find myself unable to put my reactions into words right now. Those words will come, but not yet.]

The Des Moines Register recently reported on lawsuits brought against the state and city by churches challenging recent interpretations of Iowa civil rights laws to prohibit church members from making “any public comments — including from the pulpit — that could be viewed as unwelcome to people who do not identify with their biological sex.”

They [the churches] said they are asking the commission to declare that Iowans have a right to speak from church pulpits about biblical teachings on sexuality. The Sioux City church also wants a declaration that Iowa churches are free to follow their religious doctrines in how they accommodate people in restrooms, locker rooms and living facilities.

Unless there is something I’m missing, the actions of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause. (According to the article, the Commission is evidently denying that the churches are “bona fide” religious organizations–a fairly bizarre position.)

We live in a time of social change. Greater acceptance of LGBT citizens, especially, has led to all sorts of debates about “religious liberty.” (We’ve seen this movie before; in the past, merchants and landlords have claimed “religious liberty” entitled them to refuse service to African-Americans, Catholics and Jews.)

As I have written before, government has the right–indeed, the obligation–to prohibit discrimination in housing, education, employment and public accommodations.

That said, churches and other genuinely religious institutions are not public accommodations, and their right to preach as they see fit, to take positions on public issues informed by their doctrine, is protected by the First Amendment. I might believe–as I wholeheartedly do–that these church folks are wrong about homosexuality (and actually, about a lot of other things) but they have an absolute Constitutional right to their beliefs. They have a right to preach about those beliefs, and to conduct their congregational affairs in a manner that is consistent with their religious doctrines.

It’s particularly unfortunate that the Iowa Civil Rights Commission has taken the position that it can suppress the churches’ religious message, because that position feeds into entirely bogus assertions made by proponents of so-called “Religious Liberty” laws. The Eric Millers and Micah Clarks of this world insist that “secular activists” will force pastors to conduct same-sex weddings, or will outlaw preaching against homosexuality. Constitutional lawyers respond–properly–that churches and pastors are protected against such efforts by the First Amendment.

Overreaching in Iowa just supplies ammunition to those who want laws giving them a wide-ranging right to discriminate. The churches that brought these lawsuits should win–demonstrating that RFRAs and similar measures are unnecessary because the Constitution already protects religious expression.


  1. I agree. We can’t easily make the argument that equal rights and religious values can exist side by side if we are interfering within the church itself, which is private space.

  2. The following,from the words of another outstanding professor, is submitted in support of Sheila’s position:

    “The present climate, in which compromise is denigrated, pejorative labels are assigned to those with whom one disagrees, and every issue is made adversarial, must be changed to avoid causing deadlock in public life and rendering city government incapable of functioning both responsively and efficiently.

    To overcome the dysfunctional consequences of the structural and institutional incentives that have encouraged the separate claims of distinct identities, systemic incentives to encourage cooperation and coalition building must be found. In healthy democratic politics, citizens find common ground through a deliberative process in which they exercise the art of negotiation and compromise.

    In a revitalized city, citizens learn that is de Tocqueville’s “self-interest properly understood” to give-and-take, to agree to disagree with respect and civility, and to listen and learn from other voices. It is enlightened self-interest to contribute to a more cooperative, deliberative politics.

    In an era of citizen impatience and expectation of quick results, deliberative politics may seem inordinately time-consuming. But cooperative, deliberative politics avoids the demoralizing effects of the wearisome, ubiquitous conflict that appeals to selfishness and opportunism rather than to the “better angels of our nature,” to use Lincoln’s memorable phrase.

    The challenge, then, is to find systemic ways to facilitate cooperation and to achieve an acceptable level of public consensus in order to respond wisely to urban challenges. “The essence of political life,” according to Hanna Pitkin, “is precisely the problem of continually creating unity, a public, in a context of diversity, rival claims, unequal power, and conflicting interests.” In the final analysis, creating unity takes extraordinary leadership and people of good will in both the public and private sectors, people who are committed to making the constitutional -democratic system work for all.”

    Ruth P. Morgan, Governance by Decree: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act in Dallas (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas,2004) 277-278

    [Dr. Morgan is provost emeritus and professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University in Dallas]

  3. People seem to forget that the Bible, the Torah and the Koran and all other religious tomes were all written by men in times long past, their personal beliefs guided their writings and are accepted as gospel – the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. (This brings to mind my day in court to speak my victim impact statement; all witnesses swore to that same oath but we swore on nothing but our word.) Men are and always have been fallible in thought, word and deed yet their beliefs and their actions but are somehow believed to be the direct voice of whatever higher power they represent by whatever name they know Him – or Her. The First Church of Cannabis just celebrated it’s 1st anniversary, by the way. As an example the Catholic priest can forgive sin in the name of God and give parishioners orders regarding actions they should take to be absolved of all guilt. They also consider the kissing of their rings as paying homage to their God. They, too, have the right to be wrong in their assessment of personal power. While the many and varied Christian factions believe their God IS God, they seem to be representing their individual version of God and all other Christian Gods are wrong along with the higher power of all other religions.

    Discrimination seems to be the main core of all religions; none seem to be all encompassing of humans and human nature but they also change the rules as they go along. Rather like religious gerrymandering; changing who, where and/or what is acceptable and meets their needs at a given time.

    “The Eric Millers and Micah Clarks of this world insist that “secular activists” will force pastors to conduct same-sex weddings, or will outlaw preaching against homosexuality. Constitutional lawyers respond–properly–that churches and pastors are protected against such efforts by the First Amendment.”

    Pastors will not and cannot be forced to go against their personal beliefs within their churches. But…what do personal religious beliefs have to do with selling art supplies, pizza or fried chicken, baking cakes, or providing health care? They may rant and rave and stamp their feet as they voice their views as protected by the 1st Amendment but they and SCOTUS ignore the section of the 1st Amendment dedicated to keeping government out of religion as they allow religion to become the guiding voice of government.

    Their “Right To Be Wrong” is currently tearing this country apart.

  4. After 45 years in ordained ministry rooted in 2 Master’s degrees and a Doctorate in Biblical Theology and Education, I find that the Bible and the way it is used by churches, is often so archaic. It is a marvelous collection of books through which one may discover excellent theology and well stated and complex literature. People quote the Bible as if it were “god” talking. Yet it has no understanding of neurology, astronomy, biology, sociology or any other of the -ologies. A good reader can harvest a flood of reflections on love, kindness, determination, patience, justice and other great categories. Nevertheless, when one lacks literary discernment, he/she cannot see the good, the beautiful and the true; but focuses on the horrible. It has been used as divine word for misogyny, racism, and an excuse for wars of value. The churches used it for witch burning, the plunder of the crusades and the vile murders of the Inquisition. Augustine, a fairly salient church parent who practiced very positive forms of religion, established the church as an idol allowed to overpower human thinking. So often church doctrines have thwarted progress. So the bible thumpers get the right the free speech? Okay, it is amended. This is not so fine, since a lot of people can’t identify literary homicide. It is okay to use an educated mind and rational reflections when reading any literature. A progressive society needs for its people to be educated in the liberal arts.

  5. This is probably a good example Sheila mentions of the State over reaching. Many of us can agree this is a bridge too far. The problem for me is the Religious Establishment – Bible Thumper’s including the Catholic Church want it both ways on some issues.

    The Religious Establishment wants the ability to inject their beliefs into public schools, i.e., teach creationism or hide it with creation science (there is an oxymoron if ever there was). At least here in Indiana they want the State to collect taxes and redistribute it to their church schools. They want their church child day care services to be exempt from certain rules and regulations that apply to secular day care business.

    Catholic Hospitals want to operate as a business. Yet they want to determine based on “faith” what procedures are permitted, not on science or accepted safe medical standards.

  6. On the other hand……… is nice to know that there are people fighting against religious zealots and are overcoming the zealots’ self-proclaimed right to discriminate.

    Maybe if we fought the religious pseudo Christians in Indiana with this kind of weapon they might shut up and behave. Silencing their hatred and discrimination would be a nice change.

  7. It would be interesting to know more about “recent interpretations of Iowa civil rights laws to prohibit church members from making “any public comments — including from the pulpit — that could be viewed as unwelcome to people who do not identify with their biological sex.””

    In reading the referenced article it seems that the issue is really bathrooms and showers and the churches are arguing that if the government can regulate their bathroom use then they could regulate their preaching.

    While I’m sure that armies of lawyers will figure out the fine points of the law it seems to me that common sense has something to say too.

    First of all churches would like to be distinguished from non churches by the public granting them tax free status. That makes their house different than my house. The only reason for the public to do that is under the assumption that churches offer public benefit. What is that benefit?

    If a church doesn’t want to offer public benefit but wants to be a private club, fine, pay the taxes that a private club pays.

    Now, what I say and what preachers say is no concern of anyone’s as long as it’s not inciting to riot. So say away preachers. If you offend me I will remove myself from your premises. But then what public service are you providing?

    Seems complicated common sense wise.

    I accept that human beings are a diverse lot but have equal rights under the law. Laws have to apply the same to everyone regardless of their position on the human spectrum.

    Laws also regulate institutions in ways that protect individuals from harm by them.

    To say that it’s complicated is the world’s biggest understatement and that’s why we have courts and lawyers as highly trained experts to figure laws out.

    What’s positive to me is that the system fully allows these questions to be publically raised and debated but resolved by experts with a full and complete grasp of the big picture.

  8. Leave the preachers alone in their pulpit and respect the right of congregations to worship trees if they like, but make ’em pay taxes rather than have the rest of subsidize their tree (or other) worship.

  9. Ok, but after all the laws that blurred the line, why is this more offensive than my tax money going to support any boo-boo cult church that opens a school? I’d say we need more of this to force the religious right to back their hands out of the public coffers. Kind of like removing a tick.

  10. Tax the churches. They are businesses, selling hokum to the unwashed. Maybe someday we can defeat them with a legal system that can see them as they scam that they are, but in the mean time, tax them.

  11. Pretty much all postings today, including Sheila’s comments, are rational.
    But, how about all you rational people and your political representatives telling the church people it would be a good thing if they could “cool it”. The din, if it escalates, might sound like Germany in the nineteen thirties. Pete touched on it with his:
    “Now, what I say and what preachers say is no concern of anyone’s as long as it’s not inciting to riot. So say away preachers. If you offend me I will remove myself from your premises. But then what public service are you providing?”
    Marv Kramer also touched on it with “The challenge, then, is to find systemic ways to facilitate cooperation and to achieve an acceptable level of public consensus.”
    Pete, Marv and Sheila, please tell it to the churches.
    Tell them Mike Pence, Louie Gohmert, Eric Miller, Micah Clark, Ted Cruz and others should just cool it! It’s the law! Get with it!

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